Last night I finished copyediting FESTER (or, more accurately, responding to our copyeditor’s queries, which were blissfully few.) Indexing, cover art, and other stuff should follow, and we won’t be at your favorite book purveyor until January 2024. But we already have an ISBN for all three editions–hardcover, paperback, and ebook–and that makes the book feel more real somehow. As regular readers know, this has been a rough, rough summer, submerged in heartbreak and tragedy for my family and beyond, and any step forward feels like an accomplishment.
Reading the book again after several months of disengagement clarified some of what happened in the world since then. In Chapter 7, we wrote about Leslie Van Houten’s parole quest in the context of COVID-19 (I still think that denying a fully rehabilitated septuagenarian person’s parole while their institution experiences an outbreak reeks of politicization); I don’t think either of us imagined that, so shortly afterward, Van Houten would prevail in court and the judges would call Newsom’s “lack of insight” bluff so plainly and explicitly, resulting in her release. Having reread our manuscript, I now wonder whether the court’s newfound courage to push against denial decisions that turn our prisons into nursing homes is part of the sad legacy of the pandemic. Recall that it was the California Court of Appeal that recognized the gerontological aspect of the prison pandemic and urged CDCR to factor people’s age into account more clearly when seeking population reductions. Everything involving work is wrapped in a fog of exhaustion and despair now, but just a couple of short weeks ago I managed to give an interview about Van Houten’s release to Nightline, and was later dismayed that the mainstream coverage of her release was idiosyncratic and focused on the uniqueness of the case. I wish they had made more of an effort to see the decision as part of a possible post-pandemic reckoning.
Another thing that struck me lately was how not just courts, but everyone, seem so eager to file the COVID disaster away as a “one off” and learn nothing from it. A week ago I gave a talk (on a different topic) to police detectives investigating serious crime in Haifa. Conversation veered toward the age of prisoners; at least one of the officers expressed strong, even angry, resistance, sharing anecdotes about the rising crime toll in Arab towns and villages and saying that age does not seem to be a barrier for family vendettas. This may well be true (and here, it is a true epidemic), but it’s also true that family honor killings are a unique phenomenon with unique features and by no means characterize crime throughout the world. When I talked about the risks of incubating COVID in prisons, the chorus in the room was “that was an isolated case, it has nothing to teach us about appropriate sentencing.” For this reason, I’m delighted that the UCLA COVID-Behind Bars Data Project is pivoting toward charting mortality in correctional facilities more generally. With valley fever still a factor in central valley prisons, mpox in jails, and who knows what other horrors that flourish in filthy, overcrowded places in the wings, I want to see more thought put into the continuum between prisons and their communities. If we encounter questions about this on the book tour, we should have data on other mortality factors and chronic disease issues to show the relevance of COVID to the next phase in correctional policies.
I also reread the parts we wrote about the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition, which would later be partly depicted in Adamu Chan’s film What These Walls Won’t Hold. In the last few weeks I’ve watched, with bitterness and dismay, the internal splits in Israel’s protest movement and in the open rescue community. It’s the stuff of my nightmares and the main reason I stay away from many activist spaces, particularly with younger people who take to in-movement splintering with natural joy that repels me. I can’t stand the moralizing, schoolmarmish idioms, flagellation (of self and others), massive hatred directed at the people who are closest to the haters and most want to help, and since it’s such a defining feature of any experience on the left I try to avoid this stuff like the plague and work around it as much as possible. The #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition was different. This is not to say it was completely devoid of the usual diseases of activist space: there was a “white people group,” though I’m not sure whatever for (I seemed to be the only person to whom this wasn’t clear) and there were some of the usual speech tics of the movement. But for the most part, what I experienced was a bunch of great people from all walks of life–family members, folks just recently released who rolled their sleeves right away and got to work, people of all ages and professions–who came together to do whatever it took to save lives and get folks out. Perhaps the urgency of the group was part of the appeal: most folks belonged to the big tent of abolitionism (whatever the hell that even means anymore) but the dismantlement of all prisons was not on the table. Saving old, infirm people from a preventable disease augmented by the ineptitude, indifference, and sometime sadism of a garbage system was. Which made a lot of the usual shibboleths and speechifying unnecessary and freed everyone, regardless of perspective, to tend to what was in front of them in a practical way. Perhaps if the left were less precious, smug, and academic, and engaged in activism as an emergency response (climate! Collapsing democracies worldwide! Health and poverty crises!) we could unite more and accomplish more. This is why I still maintain (and you’ll see it in the book) that aggressive pruning of the prison system (Cut 50!), particularly in the context of aging and infirm people, is eminently practical and achievable and not at all an abolitionist pipe dream. If we treat this with the urgency it deserves, rather than as an esthetic prop for our goodness, you’ll be surprised what we can accomplish.
As FESTER continues its production journey, I’ll share info about our cover art, blurbs, reviews, and release. Expect a big party in 2024 and a string of fabulous book tour conversations in the year to follow.